Isn't it great when someone comes out with a major upgrade that gives you more for less?
Apple's June release of the updated version of their Final Cut Studio suite of post-production software modules has more than 100 new features, including a new version of Final Cut Pro, yet is now priced at $999, $300 less than the previous release. You can get a description of all its components at www.apple.com/finalcutstudio.
But for me, despite the excellent one-on-one demo I was given on July 23 up in Santa Monica, the only way to really tell if this significant upgrade rises to its hype is to talk with the editors and post pros actually using the new Final Cut Studio on real-world productions.
Brian Gonosey has been a long-time fan of Final Cut Pro editing. He cuts episodes of the TNT episodic "Leverage" at the Los Angeles digital production facility Electric Entertainment where they use Apple products throughout editing and finishing.
Produced and often directed by Dean Devlin, "Leverage" is sort of "The A-Team" meets "Mission Impossible" with the audience allowed to be in on the unraveling of the caper.
Gonosey has been with the show since the pilot two years ago, and rotates the editing responsibility with Sonny Baskin and David Siegel, storing 1080p footage shot with RED ONE and Sony XDCAM cameras on a 40-terabyte Apple Xsan storage system.
Monica Hunter (Beth Broderick) of "Leverage"PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
Although the editors have used Final Cut Pro as their NLE throughout the run of "Leverage," the episode that aired on August 12, "The Three Days of the Hunter," was the first one on which Gonosey could test the revised capabilities of the new Final Cut Studio and Final Cut Pro 7 editing software from start to finish.
Gonosey used the new ProRes Proxy codec in Final Cut Studio, which cuts the data rate of even the massive RED ONE raw files down to 45 Mb/sec.
"It is an offline codec, but the ProRes Proxy codec is still great to work with," Gonosey said. "So even the DVDs we send out for network approval are generated from those ProRes Proxy files. Actually, with the new Final Cut Pro 7, we can send our cut from the timeline through the new Share pull-down menu directly to the new version of Compressor 3.5, the encoding/transcoding software in Final Cut Studio. That way the system can cook the needed MPEG-2 in the background."
Gonosey has also found new aspects of Final Cut Pro 7's upgraded GUI sped up his editing.
"Being able to assign color labels to our sequences makes them easier to share with assistant editors, sound mixers and effects specialists," Gonosey said, "because it lets everyone know which version they are working on. I assign my master cut 'hero' version of each of the five acts a green label to make them easy to identify, and older cuts are given a red label so I know they are discarded."
Even the Markers function, which enables you to insert notes in the timeline, has finally been made truly practical. Previous versions of Markers did not ripple their position when duration changes were made to the timeline.
"In the new Final Cut 7," he said, "I can change my shots and the Marker notes move with them on the timeline. For example, if I extend a montage, the position of the timeline Markers are updated with the adjusted duration. They can even be exported as an XML (Extensible Markup Language) file into something like FileMaker Pro for others to reference."
"Leverage" is known for several signature special effects such as dramatic zooms into characters' faces, or a freeze while the camera moves to a different location.
"Previously, we had to add edits to ramp the speed changes," Gonosey explained. "Now the new Final Cut Studio has an 'ease in' and 'ease out' speed curve function to more smoothly accelerate the frame rate changes. That makes the effect look more organic."
JUMPING RIGHT IN
One of the top Hollywood digital production facilities that has made its reputation using Apple products is PlasterCity, located just blocks from Sunset & Vine. PlasterCity jumped into Final Cut Studio as soon as it was released.
"This is the kind of thing usually released at [the NAB Show]," said Adam Green, chief technical officer at PlasterCity, "but Apple made us wait a bit longer for this new Final Cut Studio. Still, it's quite a piece of work."
While editor Gonosey had benefited from the low bit-rate ProRes Proxy codec, to feed its own 160-terabyte Xsan cluster file system PlasterCity is getting the most out of the new high end codec called ProRes 4444. (To keep your tongue from getting tangled, that is usually pronounced "ProRes 4 by 4").
In addition to providing 12-bit pixel depth with an optional, mathematically lossless alpha channel, ProRes 4444 preserves motion image sequences originating in either 4:4:4 RGB or YUV color spaces, yet runs 1080p at a modest 330 Mb/sec.
Head colorist at PlasterCity, Ian Vertovec, derives the full benefit from the 4:4:4 pipeline that ProRes 4444 enables, letting him stay in RGB throughout workflow.
"Since we specialize in independent features, these days the majority of the work we do here comes from the RED ONE camera and is graded on a Quantel Pablo system. 4:4:4 video is indispensable for that. So we get maximum benefit from that additional robust color component," Vertovec said.
But of course we can always ask for more. PlasterCity's chief visionary officer, Scot Barbour, would like a simple, integrated way to gang multiple edited sequences and their associated events together as they occur in the timeline.
"I'd like to be able to gang two separate sequences to each other," said Barbour, "so as I step through either of them I can see the events roll by on their respective timelines while at the same time I can watch both of their images play out simultaneously in separate canvas windows. I'm not sure Apple is aware of that need."
Interestingly, not all of the new Final Cut Studio is written in 64-bit, which is one of the major boasts of the Snow Leopard OS being released just this month. So will there soon be another upgrade? Stay tuned.
Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at JayAnkeney@mac.com.
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